Using Iconic Imagery to Tell Stories

Devilstep Hollow Education Activity


Three Rivers Jornada Mogollon Rock Art Site (900/1400) by Stephen AlvarezAncient Art Archive

Thousands of years ago

Thousands of years ago, well before written language, humans first began building a shared history and culture by recording their stories with art.  Stories about where we came from. Stories about how the world works. Stories of what lies beyond the stars. 

Charcoal Deer Drawings in Cueva de Las Chimeneas, Spain (-13000/-13000) by Stephen AlvarezAncient Art Archive

The art used

The art used to tell these stories through generations created a sort of visual language. Animals, plants, shapes, and more could be used to express certain ideas or reference old stories. 

Cueava de las Manos detail (-9000/-5000) by Gregory CrouchAncient Art Archive

Images and symbols

Images and symbols with shared meaning are also referred to as icons. Throughout history, people of all cultures have been using images to communicate ideas and stories. Keep scrolling for some examples of images with shared meaning many people recognize today: 

By Dmitri KesselLIFE Photo Collection


Flags are icons representing a country and its history ...

By Terence SpencerLIFE Photo Collection

Musical notation

... musical notation means the same thing all over the world ...

The Hare and the Tortoise The Hare and the TortoiseCrafts Museum

and a picture

... and a picture of a rabbit and a turtle will make many people think about the story of the race between the Tortoise and the Hare, one of Aesop's most famous fables.

What are some examples of images with shared meaning you see every day?

The Rochester Panel on Mud Creek (-500/1000) by Stephen AlvarezAncient Art Archive

On the rocks

On the Rocks

For thousands of years before Europeans arrived, Native American people shared images by carving and painting rocks. Sometimes they created rock art on large boulders that were easy to find, other times they created their art deep inside of caves. 

The Entrance of Devilstep Hollow Cave (Mississippian Era) by Stephen AlvarezAncient Art Archive

Devilstep Hollow Cave

Devilstep Hollow Cave

Speaking of caves, in Tennessee, there are over 10,000! It's not surprising that Native Americans who lived in that area created rock carvings, called petroglyphs, inside of some of them. Let's watch a video and see images they left in a Tennessee cave called Devilstep Hollow.

360 fly through of Devilstep Hollow (Mississippian Era) by Stephen AlvarezAncient Art Archive


Falcon Warrior (Mississippian Era) by Katie CraighillAncient Art Archive

Falcon Warrior

Falcon Warrior

The most famous image in Devilstep Hollow Cave is Falcon Warrior. He is a powerful war god who is both man and bird. In the cave drawing he is holding maces (weapons and symbols of power) in both arms. A thousand years ago, everyone who saw this image would have recognized it.

Statue of Redhorn (2022/2022) by Dustin MaterAncient Art Archive

Today the Falcon Warrior

Today, the Falcon Warrior image still carries meaning for many Native Americans. This modern Falcon Warrior artwork, made out of copper, leather, and leather string, also known as sinew, was created by Dustin Mater, an artist from the Chickasaw Tribe.

Dustin Mater Portrait (2022/2022) by Stephen AlvarezAncient Art Archive

Today the Chickasaw

Today the Chickasaw Nation lives in Oklahoma, but when the Devilstep images were created, they and many other tribes lived in the Southeast United States, including the area that's now Tennessee.

In the next video, Dustin tells us about another image found in the cave: snakes.

Dustin Mater on snake images (2022/2022) by Stephen AlvarezAncient Art Archive

Snake Glyph (Mississippian Era) by Stephen AlvarezAncient Art Archive

Its Interesting how

It's interesting how snakes have different meanings in different cultures. For the Chickasaw, snakes represent transformative growth; in the book of Genesis, snakes represent evil power and chaos; for some ancient cultures, a snake eating its tail symbolized the circle of life.

Portrait of Dustin Mater (2021/2021) by Stephen AlvarezAncient Art Archive

Iconography in his art

In the next video, Dustin talks about how he uses iconography in his art:

Dustin Mater on iconography (2021/2021) by Stephen AlvarezAncient Art Archive

Detail of the Great Gallery of Horseshoe Canyon. (-2000/500) by Stephen AlvarezAncient Art Archive

Now it's time

Tell your own story with images

Now it's time to use what you've learned about the role of symbolic images in storytelling. Using images that tell people something about you, you get to create your own art, then share it with your friends or family. 

Here are some tips to get you started:

Abstract symbols (Woodland Period) by Stephen AlvarezAncient Art Archive

If possible


If possible, find a quiet place where you will be able to reflect on what you want people to know about you and what images tell that story. You might even want to grab a flashlight and turn out the lights to better feel what it was like to be in Devilstep Hollow 1,000 years ago.

Image of Trinity with drawing (2022/2022) by Stephen AlvarezAncient Art Archive

Decide what to say

Decide what to say

What story do you want to tell about yourself? Your art could be about:
1. the things that make you, you
2. designing a seal or emblem for your school, town, or team
3. an issue or problem you care about
4. your favorite book, movie, story or myth

Toothy Mouth drawing (Mississippian Era) by Katie CraighillAncient Art Archive

Pick your images

Pick your images

Think about the images and symbols that have meanings that fit with your story. They can be everyday images, like an emoji or a favorite pet. They can be cultural images, like religious symbols or flags. They can even be imaginary images that you or someone else made up.

Image of Sage drawing (2022/2022) by Stephen AlvarezAncient Art Archive

Make your art

Make your art

Think about how to put your images together into one piece of art. Your art can be simple or complex, realistic or abstract. You can use whatever materials are available to you -- crayons, markers, colored pencils, paint, even clay. 

A Pahranagat Style Anthropomorphic Figure (-2000/1800) by Stephen AlvarezAncient Art Archive

Share your story

Share Your Story

First, show your art to other people (like your friends, family, teachers, neighbors), in person or by texting a photo or video.

Then, share the story behind your art. You can talk about what it means to you right away, or people can tell you what they think and notice first. 

Highly Stylized Zoomorphic Figures at The Rochester Panel (-500/1000) by Stephen AlvarezAncient Art Archive

More ideas

More Ideas

If you'd like, you could also
-Light your art with a flashlight in a dark, cave-like space
-Create art on rocks with chalk or water-based paint
-Imagine and write a story about the people who created this cave art
-Do this project with a friend!

Scientists Examine Paleolithic Art in Altamira Cave, Spain (-13000/-11000) by Stephen AlvarezAncient Art Archive

Have Fun

Have Fun!

Enjoy making and sharing your art! 

One last lesson: if you ever come across rock art in person, don't touch it in any way! It's very fragile and we want it to be there for everyone to see for thousands more years. Thanks!

Credits: Story

To the participating kids in Ms. Warren's and Ms. Gore's Grundy County LEAP programs in Tennessee, and in Ms. Ruiz- Blanco and Mr. Leubscher's Washington Grade Center classrooms in Ada, Oklahoma: thank you for welcoming us into your schools, immersing yourselves in this activity, giving us great feedback, and making it all so much fun!

Credits: All media
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